Wales’ match of the day was a big Homeless World Cup highlight

Wales versus Zimbabwe was not only a brilliant football match, it was the perfect example of why the tournament is so special

If you ever wanted to see the best that the Homeless World Cup could offer, you should have been at pitch one in Cardiff’s Bute Park at 1.40pm today.

Hosts Wales were taking on Zimbabwe in the men’s tournament and even though the heavens had opened into a torrential downpour, the stands were packed and the crowd sang without relenting: “Let’s go Wales, let’s go”.

And the fans’ dogged persistence in the rain was rewarded with an incredible football match – it was something that Michael Sheen could only dream of when he spearheaded Cardiff’s bid to host the tournament. The same too could be said of Street Football Wales’ founder Keri Harris when he founded the organisation back in 2003.

It was a tense clash that stayed 1-1 for a long period of time and every time Wales finally managed to get ahead, there was Zimbabwe to peg them back almost instantly, undeterred by the support from the home crowd.

Those fans thought they had won it late on, erupting when Mujahed Aqlan, who came to Wales as a refugee from Yemen, put them 4-3 ahead. But again Zimbabwe responded.

However, when Wales’ Shawn White went clean through on goal, the Welsh players and crowd had their moment, sparking joyous scenes. It was not without a scare once again from the African side – this time the long-range effort that curled into the top corner was controversially ruled out as it came just a moment after the full-time whistle, giving Wales a dramatic and hard-fought 5-4 win.

But the incredible story of one Zimbabwe player underlines just why the Homeless World Cup is special. The tournament forms part of each player’s personal journey of recovery and redemption, but for Zimbabwe number four Kuda Mapira there are even loftier goals than ones scored on a football pitch. Kuda played at the tournament despite not having a left foot, pushing aside discrimination against his disability in his home country to play in Cardiff. Now he wants to be an ambassador and an inspiration for people with disabilities the world over.

Diversity was also on show in England’s match with Slovenia. England’s side is run by the youth homelessness charity Centrepoint, using programmes held by professional football clubs, and that meant that their team is made up largely of teenagers. But it was a battle of the ages as Slovenia’s side was at the other end of the age spectrum, with a 55-year-old and a 58-year-old in their starting line-up. In the end, youth won out with a convincing 6-2 win that was lit up with some silky skills.

Fair play is also central to the Homeless World Cup and each day a team is honoured for incredible feats of goodwill. The FIFPRO Fair Play Award was handed to Poland today as they took the foot off the gas while holding a convincing lead against Greece yesterday. Cardiff City players Leandro Bacuna, Danny Ward and Lloyd Humphries were the special guests who took time out from pre-season training to hand over the award.

Mexico received the Fair Play Award earlier in the week after Jibran Alejandro Santillan Padilla stopped play so that the Swiss goalkeeper could tie his shoelaces. But it was still a bruising encounter as they ran out 6-2 winners against Ireland. Ireland’s Big Issue editor Sean Kavanagh told The Big Issue: “I was disappointed because our lads can play better. I think we paid Mexico too much respect. I thought they were there for the taking.” That’s big talk against serial winners Mexico but where Ireland did have them beaten hands down is in the fan stakes, with ‘mascot’ Patrick the DJ decked out in a shamrock suit in support.

Patrick the DJ Homeless World Cup
Patrick-the-DJ-Ireland-Homeless-World-Cup
'Patrick the DJ' is Ireland's snappily dressed mascot and number one fan

While I’m on attire, it should be mentioned that Peru, as ever, had the best kit with their traditional red sash on white number. Their women’s side may have lost 9-6 to a tidy Romania team but most of their goals were belters. Just like this one:

Today rounds out my short time at the Homeless World Cup and it is fair to say it has lived up to the billing. If you get chance to head to Bute Park before the tournament finishes on August 3, make sure you go.

And don’t just take my word for it, take Big Issue ambassador Sabrina Cohen-Hatton’s. She told The Big Issue earlier today: “Come down and see what’s happening because I think it’s impossible to leave here without a feeling of empathy and compassion and a deeper sense of understanding of the circumstances we sometimes find ourselves in.”